Book: Isobel Lennart, Revised by Harvey Fierstein
Music: Julie Styne
Lyrics: Bob Merrill
Director: Michael Mayer
Reviewer: Laura Jayne Bateman
Opening in Boston in 1963, Funny Girl was initially panned by critics and failed to win a single Tony Award after transferring to Broadway. However, after a run of over 1,000 performances, the musical was immortalised on film in 1968, starring Barbra Streisand in her breakout role. Following a record-breaking run at the Menier Chocolate Factory and later at the Savoy Theatre, Michael Mayer’s new production is now on tour, and features a star-making turn from Natasha J Barnes as the eponymous ‘funny girl’.
Set in New York in the early 1900s, the musical is based on the true story of comedienne and singer Fanny Brice. Turned away from chorus lines for her ‘Jewish nose’, Fanny eventually receives her break headlining at Keeney’s, a small local theatre. After her triumphant debut, she is visited by the mysterious Nick Arnstein, a gambler and businessman, and there is instant mutual attraction. As Fanny’s star begins to rise, she is invited to headline Florenz Ziegfeld’s infamous Follies, and the musical explores the toll her stage success takes on her personal and romantic relationships.
Even without prior knowledge of Brice’s and Arnstein’s tumultuous relationship, it is clear that the clash of Brice’s independence and Arnstein’s need for control (lines such as “It’s my way or no way” strike a particularly nasty chord) will end in heartbreak. What is particularly interesting about their relationship in Funny Girl is the exploration of gender rôles and norms. It is Brice who financially supports her husband, writing him cheques to support his failing business endeavours and asking colleagues to covertly approach him with job offers. It is Arnstein’s inability to cope with his wife’s success, and his belief that it emasculates him, which finally drives them apart. This angle differentiates Funny Girl from other backstage musicals, and demonstrates its relevance to current debates surrounding masculinity and femininity, even fifty years after the show was written.
With a lively score from Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, there is plenty for the cast of twenty-two to throw themselves into. Choreographer Lynne Page employs a variety of dance styles, from ballet to tap to vaudeville, executed beautifully by the well-drilled ensemble. Joshua Lay makes a suitably morose Eddie Ryan, Fanny’s would-be suitor, and understudy Nova Skipp brings poise to the role of Fanny’s mother. Darius Campbell is in fine voice as Arnstein, if not quite charming enough to offset the character’s sliminess. But the night belongs to Barnes, who alternated the role with Sheridan Smith in the West End, and now takes it on in her own right for much of the tour. Vocally magnificent, she does full justice to well-loved numbers People and Don’t Rain on My Parade. Her comic skills are superb, coping gamely with a malfunctioning moustache in Act Two, but never allowing the humour of the piece to dull its pathos; her emotions turn on a sixpence, and her Act Two finale piece is heart-wrenching.
Michael Mayer’s well-paced direction ensures the production weaves smoothly between dialogue and song, while musical director Ben Van Tienen produces a glorious sound from his ten-piece band. Michael Pavelka’s versatile set, aided by Mark Henderson’s lighting, efficiently conjures a variety of locations, from a saloon on the Lower East Side to a grand Long Island mansion, and Matthew Wright’s costumes chart both the passage of time, and Fanny’s transition from gauche young singer to fully-fledged artist.
Funny Girl is perhaps not the most famous of the backstage musicals, and may forever be associated with Streisand’s towering screen performance. But with Barnes at the helm, this new touring production captures the sense of wonder at live performance that was integral to the real Fanny Brice’s appeal, and Barnes’ visible emotion at the curtain call seems a fitting tribute, from one gifted artist to another, to Brice’s legacy.
Runs until 17 June 2017 | Image: Manuel Harlan